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Gerry O'Hanlon, S.J.September 02, 2022
Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, Northern Ireland, leads delegates on a prayer walk at a pre-synodal assembly in the sixth-century monastic site of Clonmacnoise in Ireland June 18, 2022. It was in preparation for the universal synod convened by Pope Francis for 2021-2023. (CNS photo/Clodagh Kilcoyne, Reuters)

August, vacation time, can often be a quiet time in the news and opinion cycle. But the quiet was disturbed this year in Ireland with the publication on Aug. 16 of the synthesis document for Ireland’s contribution to the universal synod on synodality.

The Irish Times, Ireland’s premier newspaper, led with the news on Aug. 17, proclaiming that “Irish Catholics demand changes in church” and focusing in particular on issues like the church’s attitude to women, L.G.B.T. people and those who have been divorced and remarried. They quoted former President Mary McAleese, who also has a doctorate in canon law from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and who described the document as “explosive, life altering, dogma altering, church altering.”

Later in the week, in an editorial, The Times came back to the topic and concluded that “unless the church can change, its survival in Ireland is an open question.” The week concluded with one of its columnists, Breda O’Brien, offering her opinion in a piece headed “Catholic Church is not a democracy so forget about radical change” and concluding with the words: “But those waiting for the church to become something it is not will wait in vain.”

As the dust settles on this controversy, what is it saying about the synodal process initiated by Pope Francis and now completing a global consultation stage? For all the buzz surrounding its publication, the Irish document is both sober and humble in tone and yet inspiring and hopeful.

It notes in the introduction the difficulties around engaging the young and disaffected, the fears of some that the exercise would be just listening without any action, that “gatekeepers” would filter proposals or that certain topics would be vetoed and the final document censored. This sense of apathy, indifference, even skepticism and cynicism gradually gave way on the part of those who engaged, and people began to enjoy the safe, patient, listening environment that supported honesty and transparency.

This sense of apathy, indifference, even skepticism and cynicism gradually gave way on the part of those who engaged, and people began to enjoy the safe, patient, listening environment that supported honesty and transparency.

Not all shared this positive view of the process: Some feared that the essential teaching and practice of the church would be undermined. But when the compilation of the fruits of this consultation were presented by the National Synodal Steering Committee to a National pre-Synodal Assembly in Athlone in June, there was a palpable sense of peace and even joy. People felt that they had been “heard,” that the discernment process had reached a point of “confirmation.”

The contents set out more formally in the August document covered a variety of different themes. These ranged from abuse as part of the story of the church to co-responsible leadership, the role of clergy, lay ministry, the need to develop a greater sense of belonging, the role of women (with calls for equal treatment in leadership and decision making and access to ministries ordained and non-ordained), L.G.B.T. people (a more welcoming approach and, from some, a request for change in teaching), sexuality and relationships (the theology underlying current teaching is but one strand in a far richer tapestry), adult faith formation, liturgy (funerals and other special occasions are done well, but in general liturgies are “boring, monotonous, jaded and flat: they no longer speak to people’s lives”), youth, education and catechesis, family, the Covid-19 pandemic, and culture.

The document goes on to note various issues that were not strongly present in the consultation: the wider ecumenical and interfaith context (at a time in Ireland where peace is still a delicate flower in Northern Ireland, and there is a sizable influx of non-Christian immigration to the island); the environment (climate change and biodiversity); social justice (at a time of a housing crisis in Ireland and many other instances of social injustice); the sacramental life of the church (little mention of other sacraments apart from the Eucharist, but also a sense that Irish Catholics may be “sacramentalized but not evangelized”); and the missionary outreach of the Catholic Church.

The document concludes with an interesting reflection on the general context of the church in Ireland. It spoke, for example, of how coming toward the 200th anniversary of Catholic Emancipation, the dismantling of the church’s hegemony in Irish society means that a profound change is being experienced “from a national identity overly dependent on Catholic culture, to one suspicious and often intolerant of its Catholic inheritance.”

The dismantling of the church’s hegemony in Irish society means that a profound change is being experienced “from a national identity overly dependent on Catholic culture, to one suspicious and often intolerant of its Catholic inheritance.”

There is no romanticization of the process of synodality itself. Echoing the words of Pope Francis that the translation of the rhetoric of synodality into the reality of ecclesial life can often be “wearisome,” the Irish report concludes that “a synodal process is not easy—it often entails the Way of the Cross,” and yet “the church in Ireland is heartened by the enthusiasm, energy and expectation generated,” which has “whetted our appetite for what lies ahead.” (The Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference in March 2021 committed the Irish church to a five-year synodal pathway that will continue to harvest the fruits of this initial consultation period.)

A closer analysis of the Irish experience may yield some interesting perspectives of more global interest. First, as the document itself notes, the focus of this initial consultation is mainly on intra-church issues. This is against the background of the warnings of Pope Francis against being self-referential, his desire for a church that is a “field-hospital, with the “smell of the sheep,” going out to the world with missionary intent to bring hope and mercy.

I think this initial ad intra focus (in Ireland but also elsewhere) is understandable given that this is the first time for so long that open speech (parrhesia) had been encouraged within a church where many discontents have been building up for so long. It is also appropriate in an Ireland where it is clear that we are still dealing with the “open wound” that is abuse and struggling to find ways not just of doing justice to victims and survivors but also of opening ourselves to the healing that only they can bring. Nonetheless, our next steps on this synodal pathway will undoubtedly have in mind a more ad extra focus.

Synodality, sensus fidei and the development of doctrine

This will be helped, secondly, if we gain more clarity around the link between synodality and church teaching. It has been an open secret for decades, now laid bare for all to see in the synthesis document, that most Irish Catholics (and this surely applies more widely in our Catholic world) have not “received” some core current church teaching on sexuality and gender. On one reading the pope, quoted to this effect by the Irish bishops in a letter accompanying the synthesis, seems to disallow any link between the synodal process and church teaching: “What is under discussion at Synodal gatherings are not traditional truths of Christian doctrine. The Synod is concerned mainly with how teaching can be lived and applied in the contexts of our time.”

There are many historical examples to support this argument that the process of synodality may also be part of the process of doctrinal development.

However, this is the same pope who introduced the ministries of lector and acolyte to lay people (including women) by explaining that they were a doctrinal development brought about in part by synodal processes, and who, moreover, introduced a significant change in church practice around the access of the divorced and remarried to the Eucharist (with doctrinal implications) in a document directly issuing from a synod.

What are we to think? A helpful way of approaching this sensitive topic is to note the pope’s own conviction that at the heart of synodality is the retrieval of the “sensus fidei fidelium” (“the sense of faith of the faithful”) and to recall what the International Theological Commission had to say on this topic in their 2014 document “Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church.” In this document they note that while the “sense of the faith” may not simply be identified with majority opinion, still public opinion, and in particular institutional means like synods, can be good means of gauging what the faithful think and feel (Nos. 74-7; 120-5).

They go on to say that “where the reception of magisterial teaching by the faithful is met with difficulty and resistance,” the magisterium should reflect on that teaching and “consider whether it needs clarification or reformulation” (No. 80). While “clarification” may simply mean better communication, “reformulation” is open to a stronger interpretation, as indeed is suggested by the reference to the role of theology in this process where it is proposed that theologians can help to identify “in which areas a revision of previous positions is needed” (No. 84).

Later the document notes that “problems arise when the majority of the faithful remain indifferent to doctrinal or moral decisions taken by the magisterium or when they positively reject them…. [I]t may indicate that certain decisions have been taken by those in authority without due consideration of the experience and the sensus fidei of the faithful, or without sufficient consultation of the faithful by the magisterium” (No. 123).

The Irish process has been very respectful of the right of the magisterium to teach authoritatively and of the universal magisterium to decide on issues of universal import. In this context, in the conclusion of the synthesis, they respond to the invitation of the general secretariat of the Synod to highlight “those points regarding which it is considered important to solicit the further discernment of the church,” instancing in the first place “a strong desire for women’s involvement in leadership and ministries—ordained and non-ordained—and additionally, a concern around the Church’s approach to the L.G.B.T.Q. community and to the hurt experienced by its members.”

There are many historical examples to support this argument that the process of synodality may also be part of the process of doctrinal development. The issue right now may hinge rather on the prudential judgment around whether it is possible or wise to tackle this head-on with the risk of a conflict that could be divisive. By not tackling it, of course, one risks ongoing suffering by those at the sharp end of contested teaching and an image of church that is unattractive due to teaching on issues that are biblically and theologically contested.

An ongoing process of debate and discernment

Thirdly, and finally, the Irish experience has articulated a felt need to deepen our skills of communal discernment. It is right to make prayer integral and to focus on “spiritual conversation” rather than solely on an adversarial debate and discussion method. But, let’s not be too purist about this either: Argument, debate and discussion can all be healthy parts of a search for truth; discernment need not be anti-intellectual.

We have more work to do on this, but I like the pithy description given by ecclesiologist Richard Gaillardetz in America back in 2012:

At an ecumenical council, saints and sinners, the learned and the ignorant, gather together. They share their faith, voice their concerns, argue, gossip, forge alliances and compromises, enter into political intrigues, rise above the intrigue to discern the movements of the Spirit, worry about the great tradition in which their identity is rooted, seek to understand the demands of the present moments and hope for a better future.

A major challenge going forward is articulated well in the conclusion of the synthesis: “There is a challenge to sustain the encounter and the participative nature of synodality, grounded in respectful listening, for long enough to arrive at the point where specific decisions are discerned to be necessary, given the risk that such decision points are inevitably difficult for those of a contrary disposition.” However, the momentum and hope generated by the synodal pathway to date give confidence that the whispers of the Spirit are being attended to in Ireland, and we look forward to the gathering of the wisdom of other local churches, and of the universal church, to help us on our way.

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